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24 December 2017

Fiona Mozley on Cassadaga by Bright Eyes: “A twist on adolescent idealism”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

I first listened to Cassadaga while sitting on my ex-boyfriend’s single bed. It was 2007, I had just arrived at university and I spent a lot of time listening to music through his high-end speakers and hiding from the world. I had never been too keen on the “singer-songwriter” thing but in Cassadaga I was hooked by Conor Oberst’s first words: “Corporate or colonial/The movement is unstoppable/Like the body of the centrefold it spreads”. The first two lines offer a naive reading of global politics. The second two lines satirise that naivety with the imagery of Playboy pin-ups.

This is something the album does again and again: takes adolescent idealism and twists it unexpectedly. Oberst’s songs are filled with ambiguities, missed opportunities and forlorn hope, as in “Middleman”: “Now every dream gets whittled down, just like every fool gets wise” and “The ‘I don’t know’, the ‘maybe so’/Is the only real reply”. Cassadaga tells stories. There are glimpses of clairvoyants, travellers, drifters, love affairs with older women and witnessing the collapse of the World Trade Center: “From the roof of a friend’s I watched an empire ending”.

Although I was drawn by the lyrics, the music also has depth. Bright Eyes take their cue from folk, Americana and country. To a teenager from the north of England, country music was evocative and exotic. But in Cassadaga any acoustic tweeness is offset by distorted electronic interventions. The music (like the lyrics) offers the sounds, images and ideas of a bygone era, only to discard them irreverently.

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special